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On March 23, 2004 in Michigan (1), Ms. R was driving home from visiting her daughter. She did not feel well. She had had two seizures that morning and another while visiting. While she probably should not have gotten behind the wheel of her car, it was only two miles to her house and she decided to drive home anyway.

At about 6:30 pm, Officer W saw her car swerve and he pulled around to pursue her. He signaled but she did not stop. He followed her for several blocks until she pulled over. As he approached her car, Ms. R suddenly drove away. Officer W got back into his car and followed her, this time joined by another police car. The two police cars boxed Ms. R in and her car was forced to stop.

The two officers from the second car approached the vehicle with guns drawn. They ordered Ms. R to show them her hands, which she did not do. As a consequence, one of the officers sprayed pepper spray into the car. Officer W then broke the window with his baton, unlocked the car and pulled Ms. R from the car. He later testified that he “believed she was going to pull her arms into her body to prevent the officers from handcuffing her” so he employed a “straight-arm takedown and threw her to the ground.” Ryan suffered a contusion to her right eye and a cut above the same. What officer W did not know was that Ms. R was not resisting arrest. She was having a seizure.

Ms. R was arrested and she sued both for wrongful arrest and use of excessive force, but she lost her case. The court ruled that officers “could not be expected know that (Ms. R)’s non-responsiveness might be due to a seizure.” With that in mind, their actions were “objectively reasonable.”

It is a sad and horrifying story. A woman has a seizure while driving and the police break open her window, drag her from the car and throw her to the ground for “resisting arrest.” The court finds that this is completely reasonable because they have no way of knowing that she is having a seizure. And why do they have no way of knowing? Because they have not been trained to recognize a seizure.

This is not the first time something this has happened.

In Colorado (3) Mr. B, a 54-year old seizure patient (3), was having a seizure in his own home. His family called for assistance and police officers, as they so often are, were the “first responders.” Not having the proper medical training, an officer drove his knee into Mr. B’s back and twisted his wrist to restrain him. At least in that lawsuit, the court saw fit to award $100,000 to the family and start a training program for officers on how to handle those suffering from seizures (4).

But not in Michigan. In Michigan police have no such training. As such, having a seizure in view of the police is now dangerous. You can be viewed as “resisting arrest” when you have a seizure and the police have every right to take whatever action they deem fit to subdue you at that point. Police departments are certainly not going to train their officers unless courts hold them accountable for their failures, like the one in the case of Ms. R. When the court found that the police actions were “objectively reasonable,” they gave the police no incentive to improve their training in regard to epilepsy.

One would think that situations exactly like these are precisely what the Americans With Disabilities Act was put in place rectify; so that there would be training and people would not be treated unfairly. On the Department Of Justice “Commonly Asked Questions” website, on the second page (2), the question is asked, “What are some common problems that people with disabilities have with law enforcement?” It goes on to illustrate how someone hard of hearing might not hear a command or how a person with a learning disability might have trouble understanding commands. Their solution?

“Training, sensitivity and awareness will help to ensure equitable treatment of individuals with disabilities as well as law enforcement.”

Yet clearly, the court above does not believe this is necessary. No training was given, no new training is needed. The police could not know she had a seizure so they were perfectly within their rights to throw her to the ground. And in the future, they are now free to do so again. The court has set a precedent.

It’s not like there are no programs available. The epilepsy foundation, for example, has a free program for first responders (5). They will also send someone local to your group to make sure that training is done correctly (6).

I have no interest in embarrassing the people in this story, which is why I did not include their names. I actually know the police officer in Michigan who dragged the woman from the car, which is why I did not include his name. He was my college roommate. While he has not spoken to me in years (and this blog will certainly not help that situation,) I will attest that he is a good and decent man. I am sure he does not go around looking for reasons to hit people.

And being a police officer is not an easy job these days. There are opportunities to be injured at every turn. I do not envy the police, especially in Detroit.

But I have said it before: we are badly in need of epilepsy awareness. We need people to understand what happens to us. Clearly, we at least need the police to know this can happen or I might be the next one thrown to the ground for doing nothing more criminal than falling down.

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